Kiel University

From regional training academy to international research centre

Author: PD Dr. Carsten Jahnke
The University of Kiel was formally inaugurated on 5 October 1665. While Kiel's city fathers clearly intended to enhance the city's long-term economic success, they could never have foreseen that one day the university would be its largest employer. Two developments instigated the university's establishment: firstly, the dramatic rise in demand for well-educated priests as a result of the Reformation, and secondly, the admission of growing numbers of well-educated commoners to the administration as civil servants responsible for important duties. The duchies were having to recruit staff from foreign universities, from Copenhagen, Rostock and Greifswald, or further afield, from internationally renowned universities such as Paris, Leiden and Bologna. Hence, ever since the time of the Church Constitution of 1542/1544, Bugenhagen had been suggesting that the duchies should establish an educational institution of their own. But the division of the territory in 1544 prevented them from implementing the plan effectively. In the Gottorf region, the Schleswig Cathedral School was expanded – albeit without great success – into a university of sorts, a "Paedagogicum publicum". In his part of the territory, Duke Hans the Elder converted the Bordesholm Monastery into a similar educational institution in 1566. Duke Hans died in 1580 and Bordesholm passed to the Gottorf line, which now boasted two academies of higher education - one more than they could afford. The Paedagogicum publicum in Schleswig fell dormant, whilst Bordesholm continued to receive support.

At the end of the 16th century, for the first time, plans emerged to found a "proper" university, under the control of the duchies. But the wars at the beginning of the 17th century and the rivalry between the royal and the ducal line put paid to the plans. During that period, Gottorf developed into an intellectual and cultural centre in northern Germany. In this environment, it was only natural that thoughts turned, once again, to the possibility of a university. Since 1640, Duke Friedrich III had sought a dispensation from the emperor permitting him to found a university. This was granted in 1652, but the estates refused to establish the institution on grounds of cost, so the project was put on ice.


Inauguration casket
© Landesarchiv Schleswig-Holstein

The university’s seal

The CAU is named after its founder, Duke Christian Albrecht von Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf, who established the university in 1665 - only seventeen years after the end of the Thirty Years' War. The university’s seal also reminds us of this time with the motto "Pax Optima Rerum" (peace is the best thing, the most valuable asset).

More about the university's seal

Founding celebrations in October 1665

Friedrich III never revisited this plan himself, but placed his son Christian Albrecht under an obligation to set up a duchy university. Following the end of the major conflict between Denmark, Sweden and Schleswig-Holstein in 1660, the moment had come. Christian Albrecht entrusted his chancellor, Johan Adolf von Kielmannseck, with putting the plans into action. Both Schleswig and Kiel were considered as potential sites, but the council of the city of Kiel was able to make the better offer. Against the will of the citizens, who feared the corrupting influence of the students on the population, the council offered the former Franciscan monastery, free of charge, for use by the university. On 5 October 1665, the new university was formally opened. Economically it was sustained by income from the Bordesholm Academy which was merged with Kiel. Lectures by the 18 professors in the disciplines of Theology, Law, Medicine and Philosophy were held in the Franciscan Monastery. The books originated from the Bordesholm library and from Gottorf, and the Duke, who also assumed the office of Rector, donated the university insignia, the Vice Chancellor's sceptre and mantle, and the university seal.

Unlike today, Kiel University was an independent legal domain within the town and also within the duchy. Within the town, the university exercised its own jurisdiction over its professors and students, who were not compelled to pay any taxes or rates. Within the duchy, the university was represented as an "estate" at the regional parliament, and thus given equal status with the aristocratic monasteries, the nobility and the commoners of the town.


© Kunsthalle zu Kiel

Christian Albrecht, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (1641-1695), around 1665.
Painting by Jürgen Ovens. Oils on canvas, 215 x 165 cm, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Inv. CAU 68 (given to Kiel University as a gift in 1665)

Rise and expansion

On 22 January 1666, the university held its first doctoral examinations, and was now fulfilling its full range of functions. For the next one hundred years, however, the university was left to coast along aimlessly. In fact, the sometimes warlike conflicts between the dukes of Gottorf and the kings of Denmark, and the constant shortage of money, left the institution in a state of decline. Only during the reign of the Russian Tsarina Katharine did the university stir into new life. Her steward in the duchies, Caspar von Saldern, devoted great attention to the university. It was reformed internally and its external presence was enhanced with the construction of a new building as a focal point. The new university was constructed directly beside the castle in the street named Kattenstraße (the site of the castle concert hall today). The plans were drawn up by Ernst Georg Sonnin, the architect of the "Michel" (St. Michaelis Church) in Hamburg. From this time onward, future civil servants in the duchies were compelled to study at Kiel for at least two years (known as the "biennium rule"), which ensured that places at the university were always filled.

The glory and prestige of Kiel University persisted even after the unification of the duchies in 1773. At one and the same time, Kiel was the northernmost German university and the southernmost Scandinavian university. It was a leading influence in many subject areas, for instance medicine and midwifery, but also the humanities with professors including von Treitschke, Dahlmann and Waitz. It was also a cultural centre for the duchies and the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway. Important movements and political ideas originated from the university, particularly on the question of nationhood around 1848.

When the duchies were annexed by Prussia, circumstances in Kiel changed rapidly. The status of the university was brought into line with the other Prussian universities. On 28 April 1867, the tax exemption for university lecturers was rescinded. Abolition of the university's private jurisdiction followed on 26 June, and of the biennium rule on 17 September of the same year. Kiel was one of many Prussian universities. Following times of stagnation in the early years of Prussian rule, numbers of students rose considerably from the 1870s onwards. The old buildings in the Kattenstraße were no longer adequate. The Prussian government had no choice but to commission a new building, which was designed by the Berlin architects Gropius and Schmieden. The university's main building was at the end of the Schlossgarten. Beside it, the new University Library and the Zoological Museum were built. In the period prior to the Second World War, numerous additional buildings were constructed, particularly for the Natural Sciences and Medicine.

Great researchers from Kiel University

In the last three centuries, famous scientists have taught, researched and produced outstanding work at Kiel University. Here is a selection of these:

Great researchers from the Fjord
Nobel laureates from the CAU



Time of crisis

The upheavals of the 20th century in Germany had a drastic impact on Kiel University, like all German universities. Over the Weimar Republic period it transformed from an imperial university to an educational institution run on strict National Socialist principles. Its Jewish members were brutally expelled at an early stage, a move which took a severe toll on the quality of teaching and research.

The Second World War was almost responsible for the demise of the Kiel University. Most of the university buildings were in the city centre and were devastated by allied air raids. The University Library came off especially badly, taking a direct hit by a firebomb in 1942 and losing the bulk of its collection. The old and new main buildings were destroyed, along with the majority of clinics and departments. Under these circumstances, in 1945 the university authorities took the decision to relocate the university to Schleswig. It was solely thanks to the efforts of Kiel geologist Karl Gripp and a group of courageous university medics that new premises were found in Kiel. Gripp succeeded in persuading the British to put the ELAC building, a former munitions factory on Westring, at the university's disposal. Here, and on ships in the Kiel Firth, university tuition resumed on 17 November 1945 in the aftermath of the Second World War.


Kiel University and National Socialism

After they seized power in 1933, the Nazi regime began consolidating their influence over the German universities as soon as possible. In Kiel, this process of “bringing into line” (Nazification) occurred quickly and without major resistance. From then on, free science ceased to exist.

Expansion into a full university

The Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel (CAU) has expanded steadily since 1945. After various alterations to the ELAC site, new buildings were erected on Westring in the 1960s: the University Library in 1962, the University Church in 1965 and the new Auditorium Maximum in 1969. The university had re-established itself as a campus university on the western side of Kiel.

Naturally the student uprisings of the late 1960s also made their mark on the CAU. For a while, strikes, occupations and protests became the order of the day. As a consequence, the old university structure was modernised, and all the old traditions were trimmed back. Since the early 1970s, the CAU has been a university for students of all ways of life. From the 2,000 plus students enrolled in 1945/46, numbers rose to 10,000 by the mid-70s, 15,000 by the early 1980s. Today there are 25,000 people studying in Kiel.

The university saw expansion in all subject areas. Whereas there were originally four faculties, they now number eight as newer subject areas have been added alongside the traditional disciplines, the Faculty of Engineering being one example. Even the buildings on Westring had soon run out of space. In 1972 the university moved into the first buildings on the Olshausenstraße. Sports grounds were added on campus, and the Engineering Faculty building went up in the Gaarden district of Kiel. In 2001, a new University Library was inaugurated in Leibnizstraße.

During its almost 350-year existence, the Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel has given impetus and set new standards in many fields. That much is clear from its roll-call of Nobel prize winners. Some of the many recipients of this award to have taught at Kiel were Philipp Lenard (Physics 1905), Max Planck (Physics 1918) and Otto Diels (Chemistry 1950). Over the course of its history, the CAU has developed from a regional training academy to an internationally recognised university.

Recommended reading:

  • Carl Rodenberg / Volquart Pauls, Die Anfänge der Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel, Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte Schleswig-Holsteins, (The beginnings of the CAU Kiel, sources and research into the history of Schleswig-Holstein) Vol. 31, MNS 1955.
  • Karl Jordan (Ed.), Geschichte der Christian-Albrechts-Universität Kiel, 1665-1965 (History of the CAU Kiel, 1665-1965 (Several volumes) Neumünster 1965.